Category Archives: Netherlands

Happy International Cat Day!


Do cats deserve a day of their very own in the international calendar? Of course they do. A couple of years ago, wandering art museums in Amsterdam and Haarlem, I wrote about the many dogs that appear in Dutch paintings.  I mused that for me, the dogs served as a window into long-ago times and places.  Cats are the same. It’s hard to identify with people wearing heavy black robe-like garments relieved only by starched white ruffs and collars. But  these same people had pets they loved.  The cat above, looking out at the world from the safety of her person’s lap, has the same smug look as any cat of mine. I can understand people who appreciate their feline friends enough to immortalize them in art.


Cats in Dutch paintings are often up to no good.  The one above is about to make off with a plucked bird while the unsuspecting housewife is looking the other way.


Cats often gaze longingly at the food artfully arranged in Dutch still life paintings, and they add some “life” to still lifes that consist mainly of dead animals ready to be consumed.


Children have always liked cats.  This ceramic pet, complete with a bib and abandaged leg, sits in the now-quiet nursery at Wightwick Manor, a wonderful Arts and Crafts home in England. He looks a little anxious. I have a feeling his broken ear and broken paw happened when he got tossed across the nursery in some long-ago game.


I have a soft spot for all cats, but especially for the calico and tabby  varieties. They remind me of the pair that patiently wait for me at home.


Of course I’m always on the lookout for friendly cats on my travels. This handsome fellow was in York, England.


What about big cats? I love them too.  The fierce creature above is on an exterior wall of the very grand Pitti Palace in Florence.


Chatsworth House in England has a pair of regal lions who lord it over the Sculpture Gallery. I think part of our fascination with big cats is that we feel we understand them just a bit, especially if we live with their small domesticated relatives. Our pet cats give us a little insight into both long-ago places and wild places on this earth.

In my post “Dogs in Dutch Art,” I quoted a striking poem by David Graham:  “The Dogs in Dutch Paintings.”  A couple of months ago I received a lovely comment from the poet, who had just happened upon my post.  The main reason I keep posting is to remember where I’ve been, what I’ve seen, and what I was thinking at the time.  That must be part of what motivates a poet, too.

Posts about dogs in art are at ‎and

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe and the British Isles!

Vincent van Gogh: Can We Forget About the Ear?

“Self Portrait with Bandaged Ear,” January 1889, Vincent van Gogh, Public Domain

Vincent van Gogh obviously had his share of problems.  Most of us don’t cut off an ear no matter how bad a day we’re having. (Actually, there is evidence that he only cut off a small part of one ear).  Today, mental health professionals would not be especially surprised by this behavior; we know now that people under severe stress do sometimes deal with their pain by cutting themselves or pulling out their hair.  My (unprofessional) understanding is that sometimes self-inflicted physical pain can be a distraction from overwhelming psychic pain.

Vincent tried valiantly to face his problems.  After the ear incident, he painted the rueful self-portrait above, showing himself bandaged. After each of his health crises, he sought the best medical care he could find. He followed medical advice, such as it was in his day.

“In a Cafe,” or “Absinthe,” Edgar Degas, 1873, Public Domain

At the end of a hard day at the easel, Vincent could have jogged five miles, lifted some free weights, and finished off the evening with a nice tall Gatorade.  Instead, he hung out in local dives and drank way too much absinthe. A little absinthe goes a long way. And he admitted that he smoked far too much, even on his deathbed. But then, he did not have Dr. Oz or Dr. Drew advising him.

Recent research at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam has shown that Vincent worked methodically and with great care on his paintings. The findings are summarized in an article by Nina Siegal in The New York Times.  The director of the museum, Axel Ruger,  spoke about the recent exhibit, “Van Gogh at Work.”  Mr. Ruger said, “You discover more clearly that van Gogh was a very methodical artist, which runs counter to the general myth that he was a manic, possibly slightly deranged man who just spontaneously threw paint at the canvas.” The article is “Van Gogh’s True Palette Revealed,” at

Vincent must have been as lucid as anyone else for much of the time. And yet, he had periods of serious craziness, including terrifying hallucinations,  that made him helpless.  And he apparently ended his own life by gunshot at age 37, at a time when he was at the height of his artistic powers.

So what was wrong with him?    To me, the most convincing explanation is that he was bipolar.  Of course, this diagnosis did not even exist during his lifetime, and there was no effective treatment.  In addition, he may have had chronic malnutrition.  He was poor for his entire life.  Once he decided to become a painter, his only income was whatever his hard-pressed brother Theo could afford to send him. Vincent was single-minded.  When faced with a choice of a new pot of paint or a nice chicken baguette with arugula, he went with the paint every time.  Not only that, but there is evidence that he sometimes ate his paint, in the heat of composition. Some of the paints he used must have been highly toxic and might have caused hallucinations in the most sane of us.

Self Portrait with Dark Felt Hat at the Easel, Vincent van Gogh, 1886, Public Domain

Self Portrait with Dark Felt Hat at the Easel, Vincent van Gogh, 1886, Public Domain

In 1886, Vincent painted the dreary self-portrait above. He looks depressed, buttoned up, shut in by his waiting canvas.  Any writer or painter knows that the blank page or canvas is a challenge and a reproach. The failed effort is even worse. Vincent’s palette in this portrait even looks dreary, just blobs of muted color. Still, the miracle is that with the love and support of his brother Theo, this man pulled himself out of his low periods so many times.  In the decade that Vincent worked seriously as a painter, he produced about 860 oil paintings plus about 1300 works in other media, like watercolors and prints.  He got on with it, even though not a single painting sold in his lifetime.

“Irises,” Vincent van Gogh, 1889, Public Domain

We have become so familiar with reproductions of Vincent’s paintings on calendars and coffee mugs that we often don’t really see them. Standing in front of an original painting, inches away from his actual brushstrokes, it is impossible not to feel Vincent’s joy in life and color. “Irises,” pictured above, is at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

Are you wondering if you are reading this for the second time?  My apologies!  I had additional thoughts about a post I wrote a couple of years ago, so I revised and reposted. Join me next time for more explorations in the art, artists and history of Europe!

Bob Marley and the Dutch Golden Age


What does Bob Marley, the legendary reggae musician who rose from grinding poverty in Jamaica, have to do with the over-the-top wealth of the great trading city of Amsterdam?  A lot, it turns out.  I just watched a fine documentary called Marley, streaming on Netflix. The film, directed by director Kevin Macdonald and released in 2012,  must be the definitive life story of the musician.  He somehow rose from extreme poverty to superstardom.  Bob Marley died of cancer at age 36, in 1981. But his music lives on, and the family he left behind continues what he started.


The National Maritime Museum in Amsterdam holds 500 years of the seafaring history of the city.  Last time I was in Amsterdam, in the fall of 2013, the city was celebrating the beginning of the canal system that allowed a great trading center to be built on hundreds of islands and swampy ground adjoining the North Sea.  Kids try sailors’ hammocks and pretend to eat in the officers’ mess. A restored ship docks outside in the harbor. Inside the museum, displays chronicle the glorious history of Dutch seafarers.

ShipHammock AmstShipTable

But there is a darker story, During my visit, the Maritime Museum hosted a stunning exhibit that frankly exposed the shameful secrets of the slave trade that contributed heavily to the city’s wealth.


On a video inside the exhibit, a lady abolitionist scolds those who profit from the slave trade. She looks quaint, but brave.  It took many years of determined efforts by people like her to put a stop to the slave trade.

The profits that built the canal rings and the grand houses on Amsterdam’s canals came largely through trade in products from Dutch colonies–sugar, coffee, cacao, tobacco. Production of these lucrative products required slave labor.  The slaves were shipped from West Africa to the Dutch East and West Indies as part of the “triangular trade” that poured huge riches into Portugal, France, England and Holland.

Triangular Trade, Creative Commons GNU Free Documentation License

Triangular Trade, Creative Commons GNU Free Documentation License

Ships would pick up cargoes of slaves in Africa and deliver them to work on plantations in the Caribbean. From those islands, the ships would load up on products such as sugar, indigo, cotton, and coffee. In the ports of Liverpool, coastal France, Lisbon, and Amsterdam, the ships would in turn load up on manufactured goods like textiles, utensils, gunpowder, guns and alcohol.  These products, scarce in Africa, fetched high prices for merchants and shipowners. And another cycle began. The “Middle Passage,” between Africa and the Caribbean (and also the Americas) inflicted unimaginable misery on those captured and used as slaves.

Bob Marley’s ancestors arrived in Jamaica as slaves and remained there after slavery was finally abolished.  They were “free” to live in poverty. He grew up making music in his little hardscrabble town in the hills, using homemade instruments along with the odd guitar. Eventually he and his friends were able to parlay their musical talent into world fame, but he died young.

The Amsterdam exhibit appeared to be a momentous occasion in Dutch history.  The entrance was separated from the rest of the museum by heavy doors, and carried warnings that the exhibits were graphic.  Schoolchildren in somber groups were taking in the exhibit. There was very little of the running and jumping and joking that usually go along with kids on a mandatory school field trip.  The adults were equally serious.


In Amsterdam, I visited some of the grand canal houses built by wealthy merchants and bankers. I strolled the beautiful, tranquil canals.  I marveled at the treasures of the Rijksmuseum.  It was good to also acknowledge some of the painful history behind the Dutch Golden Age.

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe.


English: Modified version of en::Image:World map.png, which was created by John Monnpoly
Date 21 September 2005 (first version); 2007-05-26 (last version)
Source Modification made by SimonP. Transferred from en.wikipedia
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Love in the Dutch Golden Age


Portrait of a Couple, Franz Hals, c. 1622, Amsterdam Rijskmuseum

Portrait of a Couple, Franz Hals, c. 1622, Amsterdam Rijskmuseum

This happy couple posed for the great Dutch portrait artist Franz Hals in around 1622. They were married in April of that year.  They seem completely at ease with each other, and they exude the joy of love. They are believed to be Isaac Abrahamz Massa and Beatrix van der Laen.  The relaxed pose was unusual at a time when portraits were serious business.  However, Hals was known to break conventional norms all the time in order to show the true humanity of his subjects.  And these people were known to be friends of the artist.

Hals included references to love and marriage:  a garden of love to the right, and to the left an eryngium thistle.  This plant was a symbol of male fidelity. (Let’s hope Isaac took the symbol to heart).  I’d like to think these two joyful people enjoyed a long and happy marriage. Happy Valentine’s Day, Isaac and Beatrix!

Pixels and Pearls


A few months ago in Amsterdam, I stayed at a bed and breakfast with especially trendy-but-funky decor.  One entire wall of my room was covered in little squares about the size of sample paint chips from the hardware store, all hinged together in an abstract design.  The shapes and colors were oddly familiar.

The Girl with the Pearl Earring, Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665, Public Domain

The Girl with the Pearl Earring, Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665, Public Domain

After about a day, I realized why the image was familiar.  Of course!  I was looking at an abstraction drawn from Johannes Vermeer’s “The Girl with the Pearl Earring,” painted by the still-mysterious master of light and shadow in about 1665 in Delft. Vermeer worked slowly on his small canvases of domestic scenes, but he lavished the extremely expensive blue pigment of lapis lazuli on his work, building up luminous surfaces from repeated glazes.

When I returned home, I watched the 2003 movie Girl with a Pearl Earring, directed by Peter Webber from a screenplay by Olivia Hetreed.  The story was taken from Tracy Chevalier’s historical novel of the same title. The painting creates a dramatic tension by its very subject matter:  the humbly dressed but beautiful young woman should not be wearing a priceless pearl earring. She is gazing back over her shoulder at the  viewer, as though caught in a guilty act. Yet she has an undeniable dignity and poise.

Theatrical Release Poster

Theatrical Release Poster

What’s the story here?  This is the question the book and movie explore.  In the Dutch Golden Age, as in our own time, the rich always find ways to exploit the poor. Scarlett Johansson is luminous as a servant girl pressed into service as a model for the artist.  Colin Firth plays the artist, who painted this masterpiece in 1665. The movie explores themes of class, creativity, the waste of human potential, and the tragedy of repressed talent. Repressed sexuality is there, too.

The movie asks a lot of questions. How can the powerful rich be reined in? How far should an artist go to pursue a vision? What happens if a poor girl happens to have artistic talent? Colin Firth is in fine smoldering form, and Scarlet Johansson gives him plenty to smolder about. Tom Wilkinson and Cillian Murphy (of the high cheekbones and piercing blue eyes) round out the cast. The film was nominated for Academy Awards, the BAFTA, and Golden Globes. Unfortunately it fizzled like a seventeenth-century candle at the box office, but I have it on DVD for those times I really need to retreat to the Dutch Golden Age.

In my Amsterdam room, once I realized I was looking at a pixellated version of a masterpiece, all I wanted was to see the masterpiece itself in all its glory. The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam has several Vermeers. But this particular painting is not in Amsterdam; to see it, I’ll have to travel to the Mauritshuis Museum in The Hague.  Time to plan another trip!

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe!

Child Safety, Circa 1850


This charming little portrait shows a child wearing a safety device apparently common among extra-careful parents in the middle of the 19th century:  a safety helmet, made of padded wood, prettily concealed under lace ruffles.  I saw the painting at the Teylers Museum in Haarlem, Netherlands, as part of a special exhibit on Russian Romantic painting. This 1831 painting is by Jan Adam Kruseman.

Then as now, parents worried.  Infant mortality was beginning to improve, but childhood was still full of dangers.  Parental love for this particular child, no doubt from a very privileged background, shines through in this portrait.


Little girls today wear equally pretty helmets, for riding bikes and skateboards.

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More macho helmets are available for the well-dressed and well-protected little boy. The love and concern of parents for their children is a common denominator linking us to generations past.

Join me next time for more explorations into the art and history of Europe!

April in the Netherlands

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Considering that the tulip season runs for only about 8 weeks, and that each tulip bulb blooms for only a week at most, I can see that gardeners and florists have been busy keeping the cities and countryside beautiful.

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Gardens are in bloom everywhere.

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Museums, like the Frans Hals Museum in Haarlem ,have traditional arrangements of tulips, like this one which only a very wealthy family would have enjoyed in the past. Each precious bloom has its own place in a towering Delft vase, a luxurious work of art in itself.

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Other arrangements are more modern.  All are spectacular!

Tulip Monkey Business



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I took a short train ride from Amsterdam to the nearby town of Haarlem, especially to visit the Frans Hals Museum. One of the more charming pieces I found there featured monkeys and tulips.  Frans Hals was a contemporary of Rembrandt; they competed for the same clientele of wealthy Dutch citizens during the Golden Age of Dutch painting, in the 1600s.  His namesake museum has many Hals paintings, plus work by other artists of his time.

"A Satire of Tulip Mania" by Brueghel the Younger, Public Domain

“A Satire of Tulip Mania” by Brueghel the Younger, Public Domain

“A Satire of Tulip Mania,” by Breughel the Younger, was painted in 1640, just after the debacle of the tulip boom and bust cycle.  This was the seventeenth-century equivalent of the dot-com boom and bust. It was probably the first modern instance of rampant speculation in a commodity, followed by a crash. At the height of the frenzy, a single tulip bulb sold for ten times the annual income of a skilled craftsman.

Brueghel dressed his gullible monkeys in contemporary clothes and showed them facing debtor’s court and even urinating on discarded tulips, turned from priceless to worthless overnight.

Today the tulip trade is much more stable.  The museum had spectacular arrangements of tulips and other spring flowers in every room.

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Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe!

Amsterdam: Canals, Bikes, Tulips and Dogs

Amsterdam is beautiful in any season, but the long days of spring add to the enjoyment. The light on the canals is particularly beautiful in early morning and evening.

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Bikes comprise about 40% of the traffic in the city.  And of course bikes make fashion statements all their own.


Tulips are everywhere.


And paintings from the Dutch Golden Age, in the 1600s, are replete with the family pets beloved then, as now.


For some reason, dogs occupy a very special place in Dutch painting.  I guess they were a big part of the good life in the heyday of Amsterdam, when trading made its citizens some of the richest and most contented people in the world.  The city today, at least the parts that tourists see, seems equally fun-loving and prosperous, if a lot more egalitarian.

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe!

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Revisiting an Old Friend in Amsterdam

In the Amsterdam History Museum the last time I was there, I came upon a particularly lovely painting of a man with a cow.  It is a fragment left from a much larger painting, now lost.  There’s a benevolent looking man, bending toward a cow that looks equally benevolent. Man and animal are painted with exquisite detail. If anything, the animal is painted in clearer focus. The animal gazes outward toward the viewer, with calm intelligence. The man is intent on something below and beyond the frame: very likely a baby sleeping in a manger.  The scene is one of overwhelming tenderness and reverence.


The painting, about 3 by 4 feet, is identified as a fragment of a much larger piece, forever lost. The original work was part of a large altarpiece; the artist is unknown. The altarpiece was broken up during religious rioting in the 16th century.  Even peaceful, tolerant Holland did not escape the religious strife that tore through all of Europe in past centuries.

Some museums allow photos; some do not.  I am always grateful when I can take a quick photo of a piece of art that speaks to me.  I never intend to sell my photo, enlarge it, or frame it.  I’d buy a print if I wanted something to hang on a wall. Instead, my photo preserves a travel memory: an encounter with a piece of art that made me slow down during a long day of sightseeing. It’s a memory of time I took out of fast-moving everyday life to ponder the timeless moments of beauty and peace that great art creates.

I’m off to Amsterdam again.  I’ll be seeking out this painting, as an old friend.